Robert Dreyfus and Nick Turse: America’s Afghan Victims

Even among staunchly antiwar politicians and pundits, few bother to mention the cost of the war to civilians.

BY ROBERT DREYFUSS AND NICK TURSE  SEPTEMBER 19, 2013 THE NATION

Afghans in Narang district mourn the death of civilians killed in Eastern Kunar, December 27, 2009.  RAWA/WIMIMEDIA COMMONS

When an American soldier dies in Afghanistan, his death is not anonymous. The tragedy of that loss is mourned, and his life is remembered and celebrated. In many cases, the death is covered prominently in local and state media, often for several days. The Pentagon dutifully records the loss, medals are delivered, a ceremonial flag is presented to survivors, and the Defense Department pays the soldier’s family $100,000 in compensation, plus back pay, insurance, housing allowances and more.

But when an Afghan dies in the war — especially an Afghan civilian — her death is rarely noticed by the outside world. Often, it’s not even recorded by Afghan hospitals or morgues. Asked whether his country keeps records of civilian casualties, Said Jawad, the former Afghan ambassador to the United States, sighs. “In Afghanistan, you know, we don’t even have birth certificates,” he says. “Do you know we don’t even have a list of Afghan soldiers and police, members of the security forces, who are killed?”

Most Americans strongly supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but they have long since turned sharply against a conflict that, in September, entered its thirteenth year — by some measures the longest war in American history. A big reason for the shift in public opinion is the steadily growing list of dead and maimed soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. For politicians, it’s by now rote to declare that the war has cost the United States more than 2,200 dead, thousands more wounded and at least $640 billion. But even among staunchly antiwar politicians and pundits, few bother to mention the cost to Afghans. “It’s just not part of American discourse,” says John Tirman, author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. “You don’t have politicians standing up for civilians.”

It is to correct this unconscionable oversight that The Nation has prepared this report. In this special issue, we focus primarily on those who have died at the hands of the United States and its allies. That’s because Americans, collectively, should be accountable for the violence committed in their name. We should demand that our military act humanely and with a determination to avoid civilian casualties.

A large number of these civilian deaths — perhaps most — have come at the hands of the Taliban and its allies. Since gathering momentum in 2006, the insurgents have shown a reckless disregard for civilians, planting tens of thousands of improvised explosive devices along roadways, setting off suicide bombs in crowded marketplaces, and assassinating countless local officials, tribal leaders and other civilians. As the war evolved, civilian casualties attributable to the insurgents rose from a relatively small number in the years before the insurgency really got under way in the mid-2000s, to 55 percent of civilian deaths, according to the 2008 report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), to what the UN now says is approximately 80 percent of all civilians killed.

As we shall see, even coming up with rough estimates of civilian casualties is difficult. But it’s an unassailable fact that many of those killed by anti-government forces would almost certainly be alive had the United States never invaded. And the victims of US forces and other foreign troops number in the many thousands. The United States has been singularly uninterested in tracking and accounting for the Afghan dead, whether civilians or combatants. In an echo of the discredited metrics of the Vietnam War era, Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the US invasion in 2001 and served as commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2000 to 2003, was even more blunt. “You know we don’t do body counts,” he said.

In 2008, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, reluctantly began to track civilian casualties, setting up the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell and other mechanisms to do so. But as we report below, this work was woefully incomplete. At the same time, advocates of the vaunted counterinsurgency doctrine promoted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and then, less stringently, by Gen. David Petraeus, along with academics such as Sarah Sewall of Harvard, instituted a new policy that emphasized the protection of civilians. But despite the policy changes, Afghan civilians continued to die in large numbers — a situation acknowledged by Tim Rieser, a top aide to Senator Patrick Leahy. “No matter how much the Pentagon says that they’re going to revise their tactics or their procedures or whatever, [the deaths] keep happening!” says Rieser, whose boss has been a leading voice for decades on human rights.

I. Counting the Dead

Iraq, which endured an eight-year war with Iran, followed by the Gulf War, a dozen years of lethal US-engineered sanctions, the 2003 US invasion and a civil war, still maintains a functioning system of hospitals, clinics and morgues, and researchers are able to make use of roughly accurate demographic data based on household surveys. One such study, published in The Lancet in 2006, estimated, not without controversy, more than 600,000 “excess deaths” resulting from the US war and occupation. There is no parallel study for Afghanistan, according to Neta Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University who has written extensively on civilian deaths in Afghanistan and who has tried to raise funds to conduct a household survey there.

The Asia Foundation, which conducts an annual Survey of the Afghan People, has perhaps come closest to gauging the war’s toll. Based on more than 6,300 interviews with adult Afghans in all thirty-four provinces, the survey reports that over one-fifth (22 percent) of the population — more than 6 million people — personally experienced some kind of crime or violence in their household in 2011. Of those, 8 percent (about 500,000 people) report having suffered violence at the hands of “foreign forces” — i.e., ISAF. And those figures are just a one-year snapshot. Multiply that by twelve years of war, and it becomes evident that millions of Afghans have suffered death, injury, and damage to their homes or livelihoods by US and ISAF forces.

The United Nations, which began to track civilian casualties systematically by 2008, around the same time as the US military and ISAF, arguably did a somewhat better job than the latter — but former UN officials interviewed by The Nation say that even the UN, with trained investigators and many offices spread across the country, managed to track only a portion of those killed. A handful of underfunded local NGOs, including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Afghan NGO Security Office, have monitored the conflict, but they’ve failed to produce reliable counts. And the Afghan government hasn’t been able to keep track of the war’s human cost.

NGOs outside Afghanistan, including Human Rights Watch, the Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Open Society Foundations, have made valiant efforts to track and document abuses, human rights violations, war crimes and major mass-casualty incidents, but none have maintained a database of civilian or combatant deaths (the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in Britain, has compiled extensive data on civilian casualties worldwide resulting from US drone strikes, but not overall civilian casualties in the Afghan War). For some time, Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire doggedly tracked Afghan civilian casualty incidents, but he included in his data what most analysts say are exaggerated or fabricated reports from the often pro-Taliban Pakistani media. So far, perhaps the best account of casualties was part of the “Costs of War” report prepared by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, under the direction of Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford. Crawford’s paper “Civilian Death and Injury in Afghanistan, 2001–2011,” updated in February 2013, estimates as many as 19,000 civilians killed by all sides, and she provides a valuable compendium of estimates for combatant deaths too. Still, Crawford’s estimate of civilian casualties relies heavily on the reports of UNAMA, which understates the total number of deaths significantly.


For more than 15 years, Robert Dreyfuss has worked as an independent journalist specializing in magazine features, profiles, and investigative stories in the areas of politics and national security. Based in Alexandria, Va., Dreyfuss covers national security for Rolling Stone’s National Affairs section. He is a contributing ed…
Robert Dreyfuss’s reporter page »


Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian, essayist, and the associate editor of the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives(Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2008) and his work has appeared in theLos Angeles Times, the Baltimore Su…
Nick Turse’s reporter page »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: